Shining stars in a landscape of mediocrity: the joy of expectations exceeded

five_starsIt is really, really unusual these days to find a company that actually delivers on what it promises in its advertising.

Just writing those words makes me really sad.

Advertising today, whether print, TV, radio, whatever is intentionally crafted to make you think that a given product or service is better, cheaper, bigger, or more beneficial than it really is.  Time after time the delicious-looking meal on my TV screen bears no resemblance whatsoever to what they actually serve me.  The time-and-labor saving device based on a really good idea turns out to be just a piece of junk.  The movie that looked so good in the trailer turns out to be a clunker — they showed us all the really good parts in the trailer!

Most of the time, it’s not about making you aware of a truly high quality item.It’s about trapping you into buying a sub-standard item by making it seem better than it is.  This kind of logic completely escapes me.  Why would anyone think I would become a loyal customer if I’m tricked into buying junk?

I’m realizing how much a lifetime (or at least a few decades) of this kind of disappointment has lowered my expectations.  These days, when I see a product or service advertised, I expect to be disappointed.There’s a word for that.  Cynicism.  Misleading advertising is turning (has turned?) me into a cynic.  I don’t like that.

It is absolutely ethically reasonable that I ought to be able to expect that a product or service should perform as advertised.  No less.  There are laws about that.  There are even organizations based on that (Better Business Bureau, consumer protection organizations — both governmental and independent, etc.).

So the burger at the restaurant ought to look as good as the burger I see on TV, and taste as good as it looks.  Sometimes it does.There are some restaurants here in Nashville where the food is always good.  Some chains even.  Chili’s, Logan’s Roadhouse, Chuy’s, Five Guys Burgers and Fries to name a few.

But it seems to me that a company with a product, a service, an entertainment experience that consistently over-delivers stands out like a neon sign in today’s landscape of lousy-to-adequate.  A company that doesn’t simply meet, but constantly exceeds my expectations can expect to have me for a lifelong customer.  When a product or service even meets my expectations, I am a happy camper.  And I’m also pleasantly surprised.

But at those rare and magical moments when I encounter a product or service that goes far beyond my expectations, I’m completely blown away!  (Seth Godin writes a lot about this. Great blog.)  And I think that those companies who consistently over-deliver deserve to be written about.  And so do those companies who consistently disappoint.

So here are the companies and people who consistently exceed my expectations.  Most, but not all, are restaurants.  (Cause I like to eat.)

Rafferty’s.  A chain of about 20 restaurants covering six states in the mid-to-south eastern US.  The food, the service, the value is absolutely stellar.  Definitely a cut above your average “brass-n-fern” restaurant and also a little pricier — but worth every penny (“brass-n-fern” is my boss’s blanket term for Chili’s, Applebee’s, Friday’s, Ruby Tuesday — that kind of restaurant; I like it).

Hot Wok. A tiny little hole-in-the-wall Thai fast food joint in Franklin, Tennessee (20 miles south of Nashville).  Unique recipes — all great.  For UNDER $5.00 you get your choice of generous portions of three items (entrees included) plus soup or an eggroll.  My FAVORITE food at a restaurant.  They could charge twice this price for the same food, and I wouldn’t bat an eye. Pretty much anything I’m looking for, usually at one of the best prices on the Internet, free shipping (if I order enough), fast delivery, and very accommodating about handling returns.  They absolutely have retail figured out.  It couldn’t be simpler.

Costco.  From the high quality on everything from goods to clothes to meat to produce, to the great prices, to the selection, to the ease of returning or exchanging.  Even the little food court is great.  Great store, great experience.  I’m always amazed.  Thanks to my boss for the membership.

Tommy Emmanuel in concert.  Tommy may be the world’s best guitar player.  If he comes your way, don’t miss him.  I’ve never seen an entertainer work harder, be more listenable, connect with the audience better, play more flawlessly or appealingly, and/or enjoy himself more.  In short, this is a great experience.  I saw him a year ago.  Tickets were $25.  Rosie and I came out of a nearly 3-hour concert thinking we probably couldn’t have held any more music that night.  🙂

Brian Regan (comedian).  The gold standard in stand-up comedy.  Proof that you don’t have to be nasty to be hilarious.  Brian makes me laugh so hard I can’t stop.  Sometimes triggers asthma.  Worth it.  Fresh, timely, intelligent, really, really funny.

McKay (used books and CDs).  Media recycling done right.  Stores in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville, TN.  A media superstore, but mostly used (meaning not purchased from wholesaler — some is still shrink-wrapped) — books, CDs, DVDs, VHS, books on CD, vinyl, etc. — all departmentalized and organized.  I take books, DVDs, and CDs I’m no longer using to McKay.  They look through them.  They’ll give me a certain amount in cash, or they’ll give me way more in store credit.  I take the credit.  I wasn’t using the stuff anyway, right?  Now I have their proprietary currency to purchase their well-below-discount-priced stock.  And super-nice, super-helpful people.

Baja Burrito.  An local independent Nashville burrito place — here before Moe’s and Qdoba, and they’re still the best.  Mission-style burritos made with grilled chicken or steak, or fried fish, and your choice of fresh ingredients on your choice of tortilla.  Or taco salad.  Or fish tacos.  I’s worth the trouble you’ll have finding a parking spot and the line you’ll have to stand in just to get in the door.

Maggiano’s Little Italy.  A nationwide chain of upscale but homey Italian eateries with exceptional Italian food served family-style (big plates or bowls of food from which you select some of each).  Bring your appetite and your family (but feed your wallet first).

Williamson County Medical Center.  Located in Franklin, Tennessee, this is the hospital you want to be close to if you need to go to the emergency room.  They actual treat you like a person, and they act like dealing with your problem — not securing your payment — is the most important thing.

Trader Joe’s.  A grocery store chain that started on the West Coast, specializing in healthy fare with its own uniquely quirky variety of great stuff in every department.  And great value.  Almost all their products are the store brand — and they’re amazing!  The Triple Ginger Snaps are highly addicting.

Netflix.  DVD movie rental system.  Elegant, elegant, elegant.  Largest selection available, you “train” it over time to the kinds of movies you prefer, super-fast turnaround, easy replacement of defective discs, some movies “streamed” with no commercials, very affordable.  There’s everything to like about this and nothing not to.  Perfect.

Then there is the other side of the coin.  There are some businesses that consistently disappoint.  Constantly over-promise and under-deliver.  Companies whose products and services are dependably dissatisfying.

What about you?  What companies, products, or services consistently exceed your expectations?  I’d love to hear about them.  Where did you strike gold?

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